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Monday, August 3, 2009

Garden of Exile, part one

Exile is not altogether a bad thing. Often, in fact, you land in a better place. Hui looked absolutely radiant in her pink shimmery chiffon dress, a sweet bow sashing her tiny waist, layers of fabric billowing in the evening breeze. A matching ribbon in her hair, a beaming smile on her face. And heels! Glittery patent-leather sandals with one-inch heels together with her upswept pony tail gave this wippet of a girl a regal air. Hui grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. Ten long years in an ugly, hot, sweaty jungle camp, primitive conditions. In exile. Enduring, with her mother and father and sisters, having escaped from the fighting in their native Burma, (Myanmar). She never looked so lovely there as she does on this Friday night in Denver. "I would like to become a pediatrician," she told me. "I would like to help other children like the ones in the camp where I lived." We first met two weeks ago, across a table here at the toney, private Kent Denver Academy. It was 'practice for the future' day. Hui is not yet a student at Kent itself, but a participant in Breakthrough, this amazing, fantastic summer program for gifted middle school Denver Public Schools students that my daughter teaches in and has given her heart to. Five students came in to a classroom to shake my hand, smile brightly, look me in the eye and tell me, "It is very good to meet you," just as they had been coached. I interviewed them, for practice, as if it were an opportunity for these worthy students to gain a scholarship, private high school or college admission. Every one of them was an immmigrant, and every one of them was in exile. They had ended up in Denver, fleeing from violence and wars in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Every one of them lived for some years in a refugee camp -- some for their entire childhood -- and every one of them spoke sweet, accented English in addition to at least two other languages. They were 11. And 12. And 13. Hui and Htoo spoke Keran, their native language for me, just a few sentences, so they could express themselves in a comfortable tongue and so I could enjoy the lovely sounds of this Southeast Asian language. I'd never heard of it before. And I'd never heard of the Somalian tribal language spoken by Hawa a few minutes later. I felt like an idiot. How many languages am I fluent in, really fluent, able to carry on a lively conversation? One. Some citizen of the world I am. But I digress. Here in this new world, having been exiled -- sent out -- from their old one, my daughter's young students are finding a new life. Their parents are having a harder time, as one would expect. The kids soak it up. The parents, not so much. I sat next to Hui's mother and father and younger sisters at the Celebration -- graduation -- Event on Friday night as the auditorium rocked with hip-hop music and a sea of gorgeous, deep chocolate faces smiled out at us from the video made of the summer's activities. "What must they be thinking?" I whispered to my husband. There is a world of difference between the quiet Burmese culture and the ones into which their daughter had been thrown. I am drawn to these exiles for many reasons, but in part because I feel as if I have become one too. It is almost seven years now, will be in October, that I was sent out -- that sounds so tame -- in a violent way from the community in which I had been at home for all of my adult life. The church. As several of you kind readers have noted in your messages to me, this is a story that will take some time to emerge, to tell. I thank you for your forbearance. No longer welcome, in fact, cast out -- there! that's the phrase I was looking for -- pushed off the cliff into a completely unknown, or so I thought at the time, new world, I was told to leave and not come back. It is a devastating experience. Time Magazine's Person of the Year, 2002, that year was not one person but three. My friends pointed out that I had a lot in common with them, and indeed, while no great cheese, I did feel a kindred spirit with them. And had paid the same price. The Whistleblowers. Three women. Coleen Rowley, from the FBI in Minnesota who tried to warn her superiors of the suspicious circumstances of young foreigners taking pilot lessons but not wanting to learn how to land their planes. Sherron Watkins, from Enron, and Cynthia Cooper of World Com both tried to warn of the financial disasters about to befall their respective corporations. All were fired. That's as much as I'll say for now about my kinship with them but the larger point is that in the aftermath of a violent attack, I found myself in exile. Not exactly officially. I am still a rostered clergyperson. I am the grateful recipient of the world's best disability benefits, through the church. But in this place where I live and had worked, I am persona non grata. Exile, it turns out, is not altogether a bad thing. It is devastating in a lot of ways. But I have learned some new languages. The language of survivors, from the inside, is different than it was when I spoke it only as a care-giver, from the safe antiseptic distance, outside the gut-wrenched, disoriented, disturbed axis of pain. I didn't want to know that language from the inside-out. But now I am glad I've got it. I'm not ready yet to become again an active caregiver to other survivors of violence but when I am, it will be with a deeper, stronger sense of compassion and with the insights that only come from one's own hard-won battles. It is not a bad thing to understand how servicemen and women coming home from war feel -- not that it is a good thing for one to have the same diagnosis, the same horrible symptoms of distress from a church, for god's sake. And I now understand and am a better friend to my Polish pals and their parents, who came through much much worse. I'm shaking as I write this, here at my favorite cafe, in 'my' chair, where my new friend and writing buddy, Judy, just stopped by to tell me, "you belong here, I expect to see you here, I hope to see you here in the afternoons, writing." Telling truths is still sometimes terrifying. I'm still afraid. But I'm also not going to stop this time. I was intimidated into silence once before. It's not going to happen again. Exile has its advantages. I like this chair. I like my new community of friends, very much. I am all the more grateful for my 'old' friends who stuck by me and with me and continue to enrich my life, in a rather new way. Exile has been good for me. My Polish friends, too, found themselves feeling giddy with their freedom, no censors, no snoops. My new Burmese friends feel fresh and new and light. Light as chiffon, in fact. That lovely pink dress that Hui had on is what exile can look like. I'm going for that.


Jan Carlson said...

Jan, never minimize the care giving you did in your "former" life. As a recipent of that care I can tell you it never felt like you were keeping a "safe, antiseptic" a distance in the intentional care you offered to me and many others. From you, among other things, I learned the language that gave clairty to my experience. Your willingness to be available was a gift. So if you now KNOW with a sharper vision... that enhances the care you have already given years ago. Tthat is not to be forgotten or dismissed. I am today, a woman of courage and some kind of faith partly because of your care those years ago. Keep on Jan, keep on!

Jan Erickson said...

Jan, you are unfailingly kind and generous. I am so glad that you experienced what I had hoped to offer. And you're right, there is a capacity we have for empathy that comes maybe not from having had the very same experience but something like it. When we can access that similar experience and remember the pain, feel it again and then extend ourselves to others from that wounded place, we can be useful to them and to God's intentions for healing. I'm so glad we could connect at that level. I love what you said about having "some kind of faith" -- exactly! And your courage, then and now, was and still is an enormous source of strength, hope and inspiration to me! Your graciousness all along the way is a gift to all of us! And I so love the courageous and gracious woman you are. Peace!

Karen said...

Jan, your writing leaves me speechless. I am allowing every carefully placed word sink in. I think truth telling is always terrifying. Thank you for your bravery, Jan. It is a gift.